George Pascoe-Watson: No-one knows what Theresa May's next move will be
As Brexit strain is hitting both MPs and officials, the Tory party is ready for a general election.
Brexit's bruising encounters are not just affecting our MPs – the civil service is experiencing an unprecedented mental health crisis because of it. Annual staff surveys just in show hundreds of officials are suffering genuine mental health issues as a result of the strain they’re under.
Permanent secretaries are now having to deal with this unexpected and very unwelcome bi-product of Britain’s exit from the European Union. It’s an operational crisis born out of the peculiarities of the civil service. It is effectively split into two groups, say observers at the coal face. Those that are committed to a sense of national duty to do the right thing. And those who, egged on by their union representatives, are more interested in their rights.
There is a time-watching culture – “my contract says I only need to do this” – which is maddening to those staying late and working through weekends to get the job done. I can reveal that only in the last few days have preparations for No Deal been ramped up to an effective rate.
The government’s digital service is central to everything if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal. Its teams are now locked in urgent and frantic planning with every department, and almost every desk in Whitehall is engaged in this work. The British civil service, admired around the world, has never had to work so hard under such punishing time pressure. It’s not in its DNA. It simply cannot respond to the demands. As one wag put it to me: “We haven’t had to do anything by tomorrow for 40 years. Actually, we’ve never had to do that.”
But on a serious note, those who are toiling through are at severe risk of putting their own health into jeopardy. And it’s now impacting mental health. Ministers are also having to wrestle with their own conscience.Figures like Liam Fox have taken massively principled positions to pursue the “right thing”. He’s stood behind the withdrawal agreement despite watching his own Brexit-leaning colleagues hurl themselves into career oblivion. This wasn’t an easy decision for Dr Fox.
Brexit only really works if the UK plc can lower tariffs and make Britain way more attractive than competitors for foreign firms. This is how trade deals are done. And Theresa May’s deal doesn’t - on the face of it – allow us to cut those tariffs. But the DIT secretary believes, pragmatically, that what matters is leaving the EU. That’s his principle.
Getting out is what counts. Because once out, getting back in will be 1,000 times harder. He knows, as do many wily operators, that the “conscious decoupling” from the EU will progress slowly and painfully over many years. But he also knows if the UK doesn’t leave on March 29 2019, no one can say what will happen next. So he’s behind the PM. All the way.
Dr Fox and his International Trade ministry are vital for Britain’s future whatever happens. Because it will be their job to take up Britain’s newly independent seat at the World Trade Organisation. What does this mean? It’s DIT’s job to unite the entire UK’s trade finance, promotion and capabilities. Accession to WTO rules is critical. Only last week we agreed in principle to join the General Procurement Agreement which means access $1.7trillion of procurement opportunity.
Britain’s ministers and officials will also use our seat to lead the charge on liberalisation of services – which makes up 80% of our economy. There will battles ahead as we also champion free trade globally, despite the protectionist instincts of rampant nationalism. And DIT will lead efforts on making sure Britain’s exports rise to 35% of GDP.
The meaningful vote is just the start. As smarter individuals than I have pointed out, getting through would be a minor miracle in itself. Maintaining any majority beyond the vote would be Olympian. Chief Whip Julian Smith - a very smart grafter – has to keep that majority through second reading, committee report of the whole House, report stage, third reading and then ping pong with the Lords over amendments.
So there it is. There’s no doubt that the Conservative Party machine is geared up for a General Election which is pretty unlikely, most observers think. People around the PM can’t be sure, though. She caught us all out once before.
Constituency associations will come under severe pressure this weekend as the thumbscrews are applied. There are eight more days to go before December 12. A lot can happen in eight days.
George Pascoe-Watson is a partner at Portland Communications and former political editor at The Sun.